How To Smoke Meat: A Simple Guide From Beginner to Pitmaster

Smoking meat, or barbecue, is arguably the most glorious way to cook delicious foods. The outcome comes with complex smokey flavours, and textures that has made it a famous and highly respected art. I’ve made several mistakes over the years, but I’ve made even more successes.

This guide will break down the art of smoking into bite sized pieces, covering the basics for beginners, but is also seasoned with expert tips to make a good smoke into a pitmasters smoke.

What Is Smoking Meat?

It’s amazing how smoking meat low and slow drastically changes its taste and texture. When you think of smoking meat, you might think of blackened brisket or melt-in-your-mouth barbecue ribs. When you’re using a smoker it’s helpful to know what smoking actually does to the meat, and how it does it. 

 

More traditionally, the purpose of smoking meat was actually to preserve it. This was through long and constant exposure to heat and smoke effectively dehydrating the meat. This process added antibacterial properties to meat which acted as a natural preservative. Smoking was used this way to prepare protein rich meats, like red meat and fish, to save them from spoiling as quickly.

Smoked meat in a traditional smokehouse

Newer technology has allowed man to harness the process of smoking, making it more powerful, effective, and convenient. In recent times, smoking meat has developed a reputation for flavor and is now more commonly known as barbecuing. By exposing meat to low, indirect heat for extended periods of time (commonly from 8-16 hours), the smoke is able to change the composition of the meat by imparting vapours, fine particles and soot into it. Depending on the wood different compositions of particles flow onto the meat imparting different flavours. The gradual heat crispens and dehydrates the outside of the meat, leaving a wonderful blackened and browned surface. This has made famous barbecue favourites like beef brisket, and pork shoulder or ribs.

Benefits of Smoking Meat

For someone to take the time to babysit a brisket in the smoker for over twelve hours, it very well has to be worth it! Although it does take patience and attention there are several real benefits that are worth the wait. The distinct smoky flavor, blackened bark, and the melt-in-your mouth texture all make it truly spectacular. Plus the end result isn’t just a meal, it’s almost always a masterpiece.

Flavor

By cooking the meat low and slow, it allows time for meat to absorb the smoke, imparting a unique, comforting flavor. The smoke contains over hundreds of compounds both in solid forms, like ash, and in liquid forms, like in vapour. There are four main factors that change the composition of the smoke, and therefore the flavor in the meat. 

  1. Type of wood: Different woods are known to have compositions that come with differences in flavor, and therefore pair best with different meats. Although beginners, and even some experienced smokers will find it hard to differentiate between them. Most popular woods will impart the same smokey flavor, but come with slight and specific differences. Hickory tends to be strong and a bit sweeter imparting bacon-like flavours, whereas cherry has a more mild, fruity flavour.

     

    As a beginner, I would recommend just sticking to one type till you get the hang of all the other aspects of smoking before experimenting with different types.

     

  2. How wet the wood is: The amount of smoke produced is greatly affected by how much moisture is within the wood.

     

    To be safe, always use dry hardwood, which includes fruit and nut woods. When you cut fresh hardwood, it has up to 50% water weight, which produces a lot of steam and less desirable flavours when it burns. It also takes longer, and uses up to 45% more energy than charcoal or gas to dry it out to burn. Therefore, most wood for smoking has been air dried, which leaves only about 5% or less water.

    Avoid using wet or damp wood, as it will not only produce bad smoke, but the steam will also cool both the meat and the environment which it’s smoking in. If you also use wood that’s too dry, it will produce less flavor molecules and light smoke.

  3. How much oxygen is available to feed the fire: The smokey smell and flavor that we love comes from two compounds, syringol and guaiacol. The amount of these compounds absorbed into the meat will determine the smoky flavor. By exposing the burning wood to more oxygen, it is able to burn more easily and thoroughly, creating more smoke.

    However, you also don’t want too much smoke as it will actually cause a more acidic flavour. The practice of smoking low and slow means to control the fire’s oxygen level, limiting air flow to keep the temperature down, and producing a desirable amount of smoke.

  4. The type fuel source used: Burning the wood by using a gas flame, charcoal or electricity in turn imparts slight differences of flavor on the meat itself.

    When propane or natural gas ignites, it produces water vapour, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. There aren’t really any additional flavours that come from this fuel source. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as you can rely on the wood itself and the juice dripping down turning to steam for the smokey flavor.

    Charcoal is an almost pure carbon, sourced from wood that has been burned over time with very little oxygen levels. In turn, when burned in a smoker it actually burns hotter than wood, and produces a lot of flavor molecules.

    Electricity as a source relies on heating a metal coil to burn the wood. Although the wood does smoke and impart its flavor on the meat, the electricity itself does not add any additional flavour than burning coals or gas would. In most cases, the smokey flavor doesn’t live up to the standards of charcoal or gas. 

Bark

The blackened, chewy, tangy crust that forms on the outside of the meat during the smoking process is referred to as the bark. Most people agree that this is actually the most flavorful and delicious part of smoked meat. Its complex flavor profile and chewy texture is due to the smoke reacting to the surface of the meat, it’s juices, and the spice rub. This process is referred to as the Maillard Reaction.  It’s a unique process that takes time to perfect, but even a beginner smoker can get amazing results on their first time. 

Meltiness

Meltiness is a perfectly suited word for the texture of the internal meat after it’s been smoked low and slow.  Unlike cooking over a high heat, like when grilling steaks, which tends to dry the meat out, low and slow smoking actually has an almost opposite effect. It prevents the moisture from evaporating as quickly, and allows the meat to hold onto its juices for longer, which creates tender and succulent morsels. 

When smoking, the fat within the meat melts which helps with flavour and succulence. More importantly, the collagen, the connective tissues, in the meat turn into gelatin. Collagen has a high melting point, so when exposed to high heat it toughens up into a more grisly and rubbery texture. When exposed to low heat over a long period of time, it slowly breaks down into a softer buttery texture. This is why the tougher cuts like brisket or pork shoulder if smoked long enough can seemingly melt apart when you pull them.

Lets Get Smoking!

A Simple Guide on How to Smoke Meat

Each part of the smoking process can be altered, practised, and perfected to your liking. But, there are important basic fundamentals that need to be learnt and understood to really deliver a great smoke. We are breaking it down into the simplest form to focus on the most critical points.

1) Meat Selection

Before you start thinking of the glorious end result, you need to start at the beginning. There are numerous different meats to smoke, but each of them almost always smoke differently.

Best Cuts of Beef to Smoke

When exposed to low and slow heat, the fat in the meat starts to melt, and the connective tissues, like collagen, slowly turn to gelatin. Fat in meat also helps to keep it moist, and when smoking low and slow, the juices are able to be reabsorbed into the meat. Therefore, it’s natural that the best cuts of beef to smoke are those that are naturally high in fat and contain more collagen. Many different primal cuts of beef can be used, but favourites are brisket or short ribs

Homemade Smoked Barbecue Beef Brisket

Brisket is a dream cut for smoking. It comes from the cow’s chest, where the muscles support the most of the cow’s upper body weight. The muscles of the cow that are strained and exercised more often tend to have thicker muscle fibres, and more fat. Therefore it’s naturally a tough cut, with an abundance of collagen and fat running through it. The brisket, being rich in fat, is able to stay moist while it smokes over long periods of time. The collagen turns into gelatin, making it a succulent and tender, delicious masterpiece.

Beef short rib is a cut of meat that comes from the primal rib, and is much less hardworking than the muscles on the brisket. It does, however, have plenty of fat. Short ribs naturally deliver a lot more flavour than other cuts, especially when kept on the bone, which also helps it stay tender. Beef short ribs aren’t the easiest to smoke, but are also not so difficult once you’ve learnt the technique. The biggest mistake is to smoke them too hot, or too long.

Best Cuts of Pork to Smoke

Pork butt, which is a cut from the pork shoulder, is second only to brisket as the most popular smoked meat. Similarly to beef, fat and connective tissue react the same way when smoked low and slow. Pork butt has plenty of connective tissue, and is rich in fat. This is the most popular choice for pulled pork. 

This cut is usually more forgiving than brisket, and is cheaper too. Pork butt is great for beginner smokers, but experienced smokers can use it to try different recipes or perfect their technique.

Pork ribs are similar to beef short ribs, and have plenty of fat to keep them moist and juicy while smoking. Pork ribs tend to be able to crispen more easily, which is a great mix of textures between the sort instead, crisp outside, and any barbecue sauces lathered on top.

Best Fish to Smoke

There are many popular fish to smoke, mostly the fattier fish, as it will be able to absorb more smoke and therefore flavor. Salmon, tuna, and sea bass are all widely smoked, although they don’t follow the same process as other meats. The next steps are mainly focused on smoking other meats, but the fundamental principles are the same.

2) Meat Preparation

Once you’ve got your cut of meat it’s time to get it ready for smoking! When it comes to preparation, there are some classic techniques that you should understand before getting fancy with the seasonings!

Trimming the Fat

When dealing with your choice cut of meat, you’ve got to make a decision on whether to trim the excess fat off or leave it on. If you’re dealing with brisket or pork butt, the excess fat is referred to as the fat cap, and if left on will make it harder to get a great dark and crispy bark.

If you’re just new to smoking it’s definitely recommended to remove it. Simply get your best knife for cutting raw meat, and trim as closely as possible to the actual protein of the meat. It doesn’t need to look perfect, but if the meat is evenly shaped it will generally be more evenly cooked.

Trussing, Tying, or Stringing
 

You might have seen full turkeys or chickens, or even steaks tied up with string. When smoking, it’s only really important to tie the meat with string if it’s particularly uneven. Tying it together in a tight package just makes it cook more evenly, and avoids the thinner and off cut pieces from overcooking or burning.

If you purchase a piece of meat like a pork butt and it comes all tied up, it’s best to leave it as it is. If you’re smoking a turkey or chicken, given its shape it’s best to have them tied up. It’s not always necessary but again, it definitely helps deliver an even temperature and smoke well. 

Seasoning
 

The flavour canvas really starts with the seasoning. Although there are countless delicious and unique dry rubs for different meats, there is one critical component to making meat taste extra delicious. Salt.

Although we are all familiar with the taste, salt itself doesn’t just add the “salty” flavour. It actually brings out the natural flavors of the meat. This refers to the salt enhancing the natural sweetness of the meat by blocking the bitter flavor compounds. By doing so you are left with the bold delicious flavor of the meat. 

Aside from helping with the flavor, salt also tenderises the meat. Essentially the juices will be drawn out to dissolve the salt, which will then be reabsorbed into the meat adding flavor and breaking it down. When adding salt to raw meat, use roughly ½  teaspoon per pound (if using table salt), or 1 teaspoon per pound if using kosher salt. You can season to your liking, but this is a general guide. 

Pepper is the second most impactful seasoning. It adds a mild heat to create well-rounded flavor when combined with the natural sweetness & saltiness of the meat. Again, season to your own liking, but as a general guide i use 1 teaspoon per pound.

It’s important to season your meat raw. When it’s cooking the flavour will meld much more easily together, and the salt will help tenderise the meat.

Dry Rubs

Dry rubs is where flavour can really start to diversify. Dry rubs are combinations of ground spices, herbs, and sometimes other foods. Salt and pepper are usually applied some time before smoking, but the purpose of dry rubs is to flavour the outside of the meat, and therefore can be applied just before you are ready to go.

There are thousands of different rubs, and it does really depend on personal preference, cut of meat, and style of barbecue. However, a solid base to any great rub includes using combinations of salt and pepper, sugar, onion, and garlic.

Those who aren’t shy of spice sometimes like cayenne pepper to really get it a nice kick and tame the flavors. As you get more and more experience smoking meat you will naturally find your favourite. To get you started you might want to try one of these classic barbecue rubs.

Per 8 to 10 lbs of beef brisket
4 Tbsp of ground pepper
2 Tbsp of salt (also using 2-3 Tbsp to initially season it)
4 Tbsp of paprika
4 Tbsp of brown sugar
1 Tbsp of cayenne pepper (or 2 Tbsp if you like heat)
2 Tbsp of garlic powder
2 Tbsp of onion powde

Per 1 pork butt/ 2 racks of ribs
¼ cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp black pepper
1 Tbsp Paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp ground mustard
½ tsp of cayenne pepper (or 1 tsp if you like heat)
½ tsp of cinnamon powder

1 full chicken, double if smoking turkey
1 Tbsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp cracked black pepper
2 Tbsp cayenne pepper (or 1 if you don’t like the heat)
2 Tbsp paprika
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp onion powder
If smoking a turkey, you could be festive and add 3 Tbsp of dried sage.

Once you’ve tried a few different rubs, you will slowly develop your own preferences, and naturally you will want to experiment. If you’re a beginner there is no need to go crazy, it’s much more important to nail the actual smoking process. Remember the rub doesn’t penetrate deep into the meat, it just flavors the surface.

3) Burning the Wood

We’ve selected the meat, trimmed the fat, seasoned and applied our dry rub. Now it’s time to light up the wood and get the smoke going. There are several different types of hardwoods to choose from and all come with varying flavours. The flavours pass into the smoke and are imparted on the meat. These flavours of the wood are naturally paired with different meats, and can come in log, chip, and pellet form.

Flavours of Wood

Apple
  • Flavours: Mild, sweet and fruity flavor
  • Recommended for: Pork
  • Not Recommended For: Beef
    1.  
Cherry
  • Flavours: Sweet and fruity. Can pair great with oak
  • Recommended for: Beef, poultry, or pork
  • Not Recommended For: Fish
    1.  
Hickory
  • Flavours: All-rounded, strong smokeyness, and bacon-like
  • Recommended for: Beef, poultry, or pork
  • Not Recommended For: Fish
    1.  
Maple
  • Flavours: Mild and sweet
  • Recommended for: Pork
  • Not Recommended Fish
    1.  
Mesquite
  • Flavours: Very strong smokey flavour. Bust used in open-air
  • Recommended for: Beef or poultry
  • Not Recommended For: Pork or fish
      1.  
Oak
  • Flavours: Medium smokey flavour
  • Recommended for: Beef
  • Not Recommended For: Fish
      1.  
Pecan
  • Flavours: Mild and nutty
  • Recommended for: Beef, poultry, or pork
  • Not Recommended For: Fish
      1.  

 

      1.  

Logs vs Pellets vs Chips

Most smokers will have a preferred wood style, such as pellet smokers requiring wood pellets. Although, it is important to note that each style of wood comes with a different purpose and has a different way of burning.

Wood Chunks

Wood chunks tend to be the most popular choice for experienced smokers. They arguably control the temperature the best compared with logs, chips or pellets. This is because they burn more slowly than chips and pellets, but don’t require the high temperatures that full logs do to produce a good smoke. 

Wood Chips

Wood chips are commonly used for portable or smaller smokers. They are also commonly used when smoking on a gas or charcoal grill, as they can be placed in foil. Another great quality of wood chips is that they burn quickly, are easy to add to a smoker, and can even be used to bolster a fire.

Wood Pellets

Wood pellets are growing in popularity with the release of reliable and high quality pellet smokers. Pellets are carefully constructed by compressing wet sawdust into tube-like pellets. They are designed to burn at a consistent and reliable pace, and release a smooth and clean smokey flavor. 

Do You Soak the Wood?

There are divided opinions on whether it’s necessary, or better to soak the wood in water before using it for smoking. I’ve found success with both styles, but have concluded that it’s definitely not necessary. Wet wood does make it harder to keep a consistent temperature, but it is supposed to release more smoke. In reality, this can actually be more steam than smoke, but there really isn’t a measurable difference.

4) Cooking it Low & Slow

Time to smoke. Depending on your unit of choice, you might either be using a smoker, a gas or charcoal grill, or even an indoor smoker. The same principle of smoking always applies and that’s the use of indirect heat.

Direct heat refers to the cooking process of positioning the meat above the heat source, so it will be cooked at a higher temperature and at a lesser time. Indirect heat, like when smoking low and slow, is the process of controlling the temperature by placing the meat out of the way of the heat source. 

Smokers are designed this way, and it’s their speciality, usually having a separate tray or area for the wood depending on the unit. The smoker is designed to circulate the smoke and heat evenly within the contained space to slowly cook the meat.  However, you don’t need to own a smoker to get this effect. 

Smoking Using a Grill

Charcoal grills can use the principle of indirect heat to get that real smokey flavour. This is done by piling the charcoal on one side of the grill, and lighting it as usual, and adjusting the temperature before putting the meat on the opposite side with the lid closed. 

You can also add trays of water under the meat which will help maintain an even temperature as they will absorb and radiate even heat, and keep the meat moist. If you want a stronger smokey flavor, you can package wood chips in foil, with holes throughout and place this on-top of the charcoal to release it’s smoke. You may desire to top the charcoal up with some wood chips halfway through.

Smoking on a gas grill is entirely possible too, although it does have to have at least 2 burners. Simply put one burner on, and place your meat on the opposite side. To get the desired smokey taste you can utilise the same principle as with charcoal grills. Just place a foil package with holes in it full of wood chips in the centre of, or close enough to the heat zone to let it start smoking.

Smoking on a gas grill. Foil full of wood chips with holes in it.

Making The Bark: The Maillard Reaction

Simply put, the maillard reaction is the scientific name given the reaction that happens that turns the surface of the meat into the barbecue favourite known as the bark. It’s a process likened to gradual caramelization. 

The heat causes the amino acids and the reducing sugar in the protein to react to create a dryer, crispier, blackish brown crust all over the meat. This comes with mountains of flavour, especially when combined with the added flavors in the rub, which also help develop the bark. The Maillard Reaction is also responsible for the smokey smell of the mat, due to the compound created during this reaction called methionine. All in all, it’s critical to nail this maillard reaction to deliver the amazing flavor in the end result

There are some very easy ways to maximise the maillard reaction, and in turn, create better smokey bark on the meat. The first is by using dry heat. This is why it’s more important to use un-soaked dry hardwood to keep less moisture in the air and smoke. Moisture in the air or on the meat will prevent the bark from forming as it will make the temperature harder to control, and the meat won’t get as crispy.

Sugar, which is found in many rubs, also helps develop the bark. It allows the amino acids to keep reacting to the sugar, instead of normally just depleting the natural sugar levels. This helps keep it caramelizing, creating a great brown and flavoursome coating. Just be cautious, if cooking at a higher temperature, such as when grilling, the sugar will more easily burn, and you will get an unpleasant flavor imparted on the meat.

Temperature Guides & How Long To Smoke for

The ideal smoking temperature can vary depending on the type and size of meat you are using. Timing will also differ depending on what temperatures your smoking at, and also the size too. 

We’ve constructed an accurate temperature guide that you can follow to achieve great results every time. If you have more time on your hands, you can adjust the temperature down a notch, and smoke it for longer to leave more time for the maillard reaction to work its magic. The main thing is to aim for the correct finishing temperature to ensure the meat is cooked well, delicious, and safe to eat!

Depending on what type of smoker you use, size of the meat, and temperature control these times can vary. If you don’t have as much time on your hands as what is recommended you can always crank up the heat a bit. Simply monitor the internal temperature and pull it out once it hits it’s finished temperature. Remember though, allow enough time for both the smokey flavor to strength and the maillard reaction to work it’s magic.

5) Finished Product

One of the greatest tools in a pitmaster’s arsenal is a thermometer. There are several different types varying on convenience, and some personal preference. Although different thermometers come with their perks, the main thing is to have one that is reliable. Also remember, measure the temperature from the thickest part of the meat to ensure doneness. No matter which thermometer you prefer, use it. Take the meat out once it hits the internal finishing temperature. 

How Long To Rest Meat For After Smoking

No matter how tempted you get to serve the masterpiece in front of your eyes, depending on the meat, you will want to let it rest to complete the process.

After dehydrating in the smoker the meat can lose up to 75% of its moisture. This is because the muscle fibres in the meat contract as they cook forcing all the juices out. By allowing the meat to rest after smoking, the juices are actually reabsorbed back into the meat as the fibres begin to expand again. This really makes the meat that much more flavorful and succulent.

This is highly recommended for most meats, with the exception of chicken and ribs. Resting will also stop the meat juices from flooding out when the meat is cut. Here is a general resting time guide.

  • Chicken: 0 minutes
  • Turkey: 20 minutes
  • Pork Butt: 2-4 hours
  • Brisket: 2-4 hours
  • Prime Rib: 15-30 minutes
  • Ribs: – 0-5 minutes

Once you’ve tested your patience waiting for the meat to rest that’s it. You’re ready for the best part. Time to eat!

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